Friday, July 20, 2007

Open Sesame: Acknowledging Caste in the Public Sphere

One of the speakers at the recently concluded Convention of the Goan Diaspora held in Lisbon chose to dwell on, among other matters in his address, on the pernicious evil of the caste system that continued to dwell in the midst of what was otherwise a relatively enlightened community. He was moved no doubt, by his observation of the social events that transpired prior to the commencement of the day-long deliberations of the Convention. To illustrate, almost every introduction at the Convention was quickly followed with the question, “and where in Goa are you from?” Now all of us Goans know that this is no innocent question. One asks this question primarily to assert the other’s caste, and then go on to place them in the appropriate social category. This placement may not necessarily be derogatory, but it will nevertheless factor caste into the decision. Who knows, but it is possible that this question is one that is possibly asked only by the upper-caste person, for surely, it is only when you have nothing to hide or be ashamed of that one really inquires into the caste of the other. But be this as it may, the fact is, that as a community, we were chided for still pandering to this pernicious and outdated evil.

This laudable concern was picked up by a member of the audience who then went on to argue, that indeed, we must ignore caste altogether, we must never acknowledge it. To acknowledge it is to continue this evil. It must be as if it never exists, quoth he. It is at this point that I began to get a little uncomfortable, and my discomfort was proved justified in the course of my conversation with this gentleman at the coffee-break that followed.

I don’t for a minute support discrimination based on caste, and yet I believe I am honest enough to acknowledge that it plays a part in the moulding of my predelictions, tastes and concerns. A member of the Catholic upper-castes, my very being is defined by the privileges that my caste-membership has ensured to me. And in the end, sophisticated and high-class markers are identified according to their proximity to upper-caste notions of appropriateness. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the Konkani our state supports. Which caste speaks this state version as if it were the Konkani spoken within the confines of their home? Yep, you got the answer. To get back to the point though, if one has acknowledged that one’s caste is significant in giving one the privilege that one enjoys, then to deny the existence of this privilege is to deceive the public. One is pretending to be equal, when in fact one is not. On the contrary, as compared to the individual who does not have that upper caste heritage, the upper-caste person has a decided advantage. Political correctness, and social justice concerns therefore, would demand a declaration in public debates of our caste background. This may sound ridiculous but if you give me a moment you will perhaps see my point. My argument is that when making claims in the public sphere, to elide the fact of caste would be to pretend that it does not exist, when in fact, it does. It operates even when we consciously seek to work against it. It is for this reason then, to encourage our audience to contemplate the role of caste and privilege in our claims and positions that I advocate the public acknowledgement of caste. Not a triumphal proclamation though, and not a mea culpa either, but definitely a statement of fact, to enable our accountability to the public.

To return to my gentleman friend though, it appears that his claim to ignore caste was motivated more by the anger that persons of lower caste were getting what he thought an unfair advantage in admissions to such institutions as the GMC. Given that the entire matter of reservations is too complex for the confines of this column I will leave this matter here. I will however use it to highlight once more the possibility that when we talk of erasing reference to caste, all too often what we are proposing is that we ignore the privilege it grants us and let it operate in secret.
(published in the Gomantak Times, 18th july 2007)

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